three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
31-Nov-Dec-2007
By: 
Mark Levine
user_rating: 
0

Devastation, Survival and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the 20th Century

A-F5The night of April 3, 1974 was unlike any other night in recorded history. Within 16 hours, a Midwestern superstorm unleashed a shocking 148 tornadoes—6 of them reaching the highest level of destruction, F5, with wind speeds in excess of 300 mph—over a 2,500-mile area stretching across 13 states, from Michigan to Mississippi. The storms killed 330 people, wounded an additional 5,400, and resulted in $600 million in property damage. Mark Levine focuses on the particularly hard-hit community of Limestone County, Alabama, as he recreates the experiences of several of its residents during those terrifying hours. He also chronicles the efforts of Japanese meteorologist Tetsuya "Ted" Fujita, whose life-saving scale for classifying tornadoes would be a product of this night.
Miramax. 336 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1401352200

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Levine is best known as a poet, though not an exceptional one, but here he turns the laconic detail, thorough compression and rhythmic nuance of his best verse to sensational use, producing a work of reportage so artfully structured and emotionally moving that it looks pretty good next to In Cold Blood." Troy Patterson

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"In the hands of a less gifted writer F5 would be just another disaster book in what has become a crowded field, but Mr. Levine wisely avoids concentrating solely on the white-knuckle drama of the violence and its aftermath. He provides clear explanations of how and why severe storms and tornadoes spring to life in the Earth’s atmosphere." Christopher C. Burt

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The narrative he shapes from these real-life characters is compelling and moving, stopping just short of the melodrama we often associate with television tornado reports. … It’s in that big picture where Levine’s attempt to make sense of the tragedy falters—and, in the process, shows up humanity’s sometimes frustrating tendency to attribute meaning and grandeur to the weather." Thomas Conner

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Levine] treats [the stories of the people he interviewed] with unfailing dignity and respect, giving the book a strong emotional grounding even in its most sensationalistic moments. … [His] attempts to link the disruptive physical energies of the superoutbreak with the chaotic temper of America in 1974 (think Nixon, Patty Hearst, the streaker at the Oscars) never achieve coherence." Gary Krist

Toledo Blade 3 of 5 Stars
"Levine, a fine magazine writer whose name will be familiar to readers of Outside and New York Times Magazine, has a gift for writing in the moment, for recreating scenes, but he proves creakier with the context, and the result is a rangy work. His centerpiece, the outbreak itself, is as harrowing and visceral as the best contemporary survival journalism." Christopher Borrelli

Los Angeles Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Apart from the problem inherent in linking natural disaster to social malaise, the book also shows a lack of passion in translating natural phenomena. … This sepia-toned book lacks the vibrancy of those that manage to make disaster come alive, to help us understand how things happen, and to showcase what it means to survive amid the rubble." Rachel Toor

Critical Summary

A surprising three-quarters of the world’s tornadoes touch down in the United States, making them as American as, well, apple pie. Mark Levine examines this phenomenon in the context of a single, historic night, bringing the devastation vibrantly to life through the stories of the people who lived through it. Levine’s strength is definitely the human element: while the personal narratives are gripping, F5 generally lacks comprehensive scientific explanations and details for the layman. A few critics also commented that Levine’s attempts to attach a greater meaning to the storm—attributing nature’s fury to the political and social climate of mid-1970s America—feel awkward and irrelevant. Readers who can overlook these missteps should enjoy this "uneven but unquestionably compelling history" (Toledo Blade).